Space. The final frontier. While Sputnik I may not have had Captain Kirk at the helm, it surely has as great an impact as the Enterprise ever did.

From a physical perspective, Sputnik I is small and nothing particularly spectacular. A small metal sphere 58 centimeters in diameter and weighing 83.6 kilograms, it had four antennas continuously broadcasting radio pulses. It was launched on 4 October 1957 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in the then-Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. The radio stopped transmitting on 26 October, and the satellite burned up on reentry in January 1958. In addition to the radio, the satellite transmitted temperature and pressure information to ground stations, providing limited but valuable information.[i]

What makes Sputnik I (called such as the first of three satellites named Sputnik) unique is that it is the first artificial satellite.[ii] For the first time, humanity put something up alongside the stars. Of course, this sort of event commands the world’s attention.

Given that the event happened during the Cold War, there was a definitive adversarial aspect to Sputnik’s launch. As it happened, in 1955 the US had been the first to announce that it would launch a satellite during the International Geophysical Year, which ran from July 1957 to December 1958. In response, 4 days later the USSR committed to the same goal. Prior to this event, both the Soviet and US rocket programs had relied heavily on German experts captured and/or recruited at the end of World War II, seeking to gain as much knowledge as possible from Germany’s work during the war.[iii] Following the commitments to put satellites in orbit, the nascent space race kicked into high gear.

Of course, the USSR’s accomplishment was hailed as a victory for Russia, the Soviet Union, communism, anti-capitalism, and everything else that distinguished between East and West. For example, “The Chinese Communist reaction was to declare quickly that the launching of the earth satellite was proof of Soviet military and scientific supremacy over the United States.”[iv]3 The biggest concern in the West was that the launch of Sputnik implied that the West (in other words, the US) was falling behind militarily, and more broadly, scientifically. An internal US government evaluation developed shortly after the launch noted “Representatives of the Western European Union meeting in Strasbourg severely criticized the U.S. for falling behind in the arms race” and “In Japan, members of the Liberal Democratic Party agitated against further increases in conventional military forces.”[v]4

At the same time that Sputnik served as part of a competition between East and West, it was also a beginning of a sort of bridge. Regardless of ideology, belief, or politics, engineering feats are engineering feats, and American scientists were one to recognize the accomplishment of Sputnik for what it was. In fact, the first comment the US National Science Board made in its initial statement was one of praise: “The Board regarded this as a great scientific and technical achievement; and urged that it be recognized as such. The Board further considered it as an impressive demonstration of the strong position of Russian science and education. […] The Board urged that both short and long range steps be taken continually to improve our scientific position.”[vi]6 This is noteworthy not just because it is praising something of the Russians (and by extension, the Soviets). It is recommended that the US actually emulate Russia by placing a larger focus on science education. At a time when all the questions being asked were “how can the US do better than Russia,” this answer was “be like Russia” (at least in one facet).

Eventually, this recognition of Russian capabilities would play into President Kennedy’s offer of starting a joint US-USSR moon program, which was brought to a halt following his assassination. Later, in the early 1970s, the space programs would end up cooperating in the Apollo-Soyuz test mission, as well as later interactions between the Russian space station Mir and the US space shuttles.

Several things distinctively mark Sputnik as being Russian—for one, its simplicity and plainness. While the US’s initial satellite program, Vanguard, provided a large variety of information even during the first launch, all Sputnik did was transmit a radio pulse, some temperature data, and some atmospheric density data. While to a certain extent the plainness is understandable (why complicate an already complex undertaking, especially when it’s never been tried before), it certainly reflects a difference in thinking between Russia and the US. Russia had actually planned to launch a much larger and more complex satellite initially. However, the fear of being second led them to develop Sputnik I (and save the more complex design for Sputnik III) in order to beat the US. The US noted this in one of its initial assessments: “Sophisticated opinion is, of course, far less likely to be impressed by the drama of the satellite or its being a ‘first’. It will be much slower to form its opinion of the fundamental implications of the Soviet achievement as an index of the level of Soviet science, and of the relative capabilities of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.”[vii]

The other big quality of “Russianess” Sputnik highlights is how well it accomplished what it set out to do. Although the Russians had completed several tests of the rocket that put Sputnik in orbit, there had been no tests of any satellite in a production environment prior to putting Sputnik into space. And yet Sputnik performed as designed, despite being the very first attempt. In spite of being first, in spite of operating in a very foreign environment, in spite of being completely out of humanity’s reach, Sputnik worked. Like Soviet-style apartment buildings or the Lada automobile, it was simple, but it worked.

At the end of its life, Sputnik burned up in the atmosphere with but a few physical remainders of its existence (along with numerous mockups and test devices). But the impact it had on the world will never go away. The spurring of the space race resulted in huge amounts of effort and energy put into education and research on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Technologies and processes developed as part of space exploration have resulted in spinoffs ranging from things as simple as baby food to artificial limbs and heart implants. Today spaceflight is considered practically a regular occurrence, and stargazing and other space hobbies are common pastimes. It’s reasonable to assume that humanity would have a presence in space regardless of whether Sputnik had been the first or not. But it will forever be remembered as humanity’s first tentative reach beyond our planet.

[i] Lafleur, Claude. “Spacecrafts Launched in 1957.” Spacecraft Encyclopedia, n.d. http://claudelafleur.qc.ca/Spacecrafts-1957.html.

[ii] “Sputnik 1.” NASA, n.d. http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/nmc/spacecraftDisplay.do?id=1957-001B.

[iii] Dulles, John. “‘John Foster, Dulles to James C. Hagerty, October 8, 1957, with Attached: ’Draft Statements on the Soviet Satellite," October 5, 1957.,” October 5, 1957. http://history.nasa.gov/sputnik/15.html.

[iv] “National Security Council, ‘Discussion at the 339th Meeting of the National Security Council, Thursday, October 10, 1957,.’” Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, October 11, 1957. http://history.nasa.gov/sputnik/oct57.html.

[v] “Reaction to the Soviet Satellite - A Preliminary Evaluation.” Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, October 16, 1957. http://eisenhower.archives.gov/research/online_documents/sputnik/Reaction.pdf

[vi] “Statement by the National Science Board in Response to Russian Satellite, October 1957.” Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, October 1957. http://eisenhower.archives.gov/research/online_documents/sputnik/10_1957_Statement.pdf.

[vii] “Reaction to the Soviet Satellite - A Preliminary Evaluation.” Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, October 16, 1957. http://eisenhower.archives.gov/research/online_documents/sputnik/Reaction.pdf.